Release Date: October 18, 2011
Genre(s): Horror, Satire
Here’s the sad truth about Chuck Palahniuk, folks – it’s going to be a bit painful for you to hear, I know, I once denied it too – pick three of his books and read them, any three, and you’ll pretty much have a feel for how the rest of his catalogue reads. Damned is no different and even though it’s been… a while since I’ve read anything by Palahniuk, it was like having a conversation with an old friend. The problem is this old friend graduated high school five years ago and is still going after the freshmen who don’t know any better. I am Jack’s cold dose of reality.
Damned focuses on Madison Spencer, a thirteen year old daughter to two unimaginably successful individuals whom, at the height of their zeal, might have been disciples of Tender Branson himself. Maddie died tragically from “smoking too much marijuana” and found herself in Hell, where she put together something of a Breakfast Club for herself. This is where we pick up the story, right around the time she’s meeting her Popular Girl.
The plot wanders in too many frenetic directions for me to be satisfied that a cohesive story is being told. Palahniuk’s repetitive phrases this time around are to start each chapter like a Judy Blume novel – Are you there Satan? It’s me, Madison – and to assert to everyone that this thirteen year old girl, yes of course she knows what a social construct is at age thirteen. First, they are escapees from their cells, traversing a landscape that only Chuck Palahniuk could think up. The hot spit and mouthful of toenail clippings and Swamp of Partial-birth Abortions were delightfully described in only the way Palahniuk could pull off, but it’s all been there, done that for me.
Traversing the hellish terrain turns into a rather cushy desk job for little Maddie. You see all the telemarketers and online porn come from Hell. Babette, the Popular Girl, is surprisingly adept at navigating the bureaucracy of Hell with a candy bar and a smile, securing Maddie her job. This shifts the story into Maddie becoming one of the better recruiters for Hell, explaining to those old and young, who were so desperate for some interaction that they’d stay on the line with a telemarketer asking asinine questions, that Hell and Death both weren’t so bad. Before you can ask yourself, ‘Wait, what the fuck am I reading now?’ Maddie’s off on another confusing adventure!
This time, all thirteen years of her life experiences behind her, she sets out to conquer Hell and gather minions to hunt down Satan… or something. Basically, a comical montage occurs where Maddie rips the moustache off Hitler, the crown of Catherine de Medicis, assaulting and defeating many other famous ruthless folk – Vlad the Impaler, Caligula, it goes on and on in unbelievable detail. And when she’s run out of historical figures to assault? She begins to go after demons.
Hell seemingly conquered, Maddie and her merry band of Breakfast Clubbers prepare to return to Earth for Halloween night – the one night the inhabitants of Hell are allowed to walk the Earth and gather candy (currency). Their driver is revealed to be Satan himself, the very same who brought Maddie to Hell in the first place. And he lets her in on a little secret: everything she ever was or will be, every thought she has or ever will have, everything she knows and speaks from the beginning of time to the end, was orchestrated by Satan. After that bomb drop, he orchestrates one more for Maddie – leaving her, through a series of sabotaged mishaps – trapped on Earth for an entire year because she’s missed the Halloween curfew back to Hell.
And that’s where this scattershot of a book ends, with a kind of tentative mostly ending if you didn’t want to continue on to the sequel (or you had to wait for it). I just didn’t like Madison Spencer – at all. As someone who has always found some way to empathize with Palahniuk’s past characters, she was so unbelievable as a thirteen year old girl that I just found it laughable. If you desperately have to continue your love affair with Palahniuk, it’s got the same kitschy charm as the rest of his books, but if you want to live of the nostalgia of your anarchist phase, go ahead and skip this one.
Final Thoughts: The visuals are everything and more you could ever want out of Palahniuk. The problem here is reader fatigue, I think. With the sequel, Doomed, out now, new Palahniuk fans might better appreciate Damned. A rare miss on the characterization of Maddie makes this novel a bit tougher to get through. If you’re hell bent on getting through the Palahniuk catalogue, it’s a short read. If you’re just a casual reader dipping into Chuck Palahniuk’s worlds, go for a different title…